All Hat, No Cattle: A Tenderfoot’s Trip to Calgary Stampede

EVERY TOWN HAS ITS SUMMER FAIR, BUT ALMOST NO ONE GOES AS BIG AS CALGARY DOES WITH STAMPEDE. For over a hundred years – the exact beginning is up for debate – Calgary has been celebrating its very prairie image as “Cowtown” with livestock competitions and rodeos and chuckwagon races, expanding along the way to include a midway and a big show and a celebration of native life and heritage. The scale and polish of Stampede grew when oil replaced cattle as the principal export of the province, and Alberta assumed Texas-sized ambitions within Canada.

Visiting Calgary for the first time during Stampede is the equivalent of getting to know Munich during Oktoberfest, or Mexico City during Cinco de Mayo. But that was my assignment during Canada’s sesquicentenary, and I took it on with the eagerness every Canadian feels when given the opportunity to dress up and play cowboy in the city that practically makes it mandatory for at least one week a year. It goes without saying that 2020 and the coronavirus canceled events like Stampede all over the world, but with an end to lockdowns in sight it’s back on schedule for July of this year.

The first thing that impressed me about Stampede was how completely the city embraces the event. Once you get past the hay bales in front of banks and coffee shops and the way nearly everyone kits themselves out in cowboy garb, you start to realize that the commitment is more than set dressing and costume. At the free pancake breakfasts along Stephen Avenue and in Fluor Rope Square there are hundreds of people involved in cooking and cleanup and entertainment, most of whom are volunteers, as are the people who’ve spent months organizing and staffing events, overseeing corrals and stables full of animals. I try to imagine the same massive civic involvement in something like the Canadian National Exhibition in my own hometown of Toronto, and how it would thrive instead of perennially struggle to survive.

An American from the midwest all the way to the Rio Grande would find Stampede familiar, even comforting, mostly because the grassy open border along the 49th Parallel to the south is completely porous. There’s fiddle music everywhere, new country in the Nashville North beer tent, and big brass bands doing choreographed routines for enthusiastic audiences. The Western Oasis is a quiet place to catch your breath with wine and lunch and an art fair featuring equestrian, native and frontier themes that are popular on both sides of the border. And there’s the midway and its high calorie, artery-clogging, once-a-year fair food, supersized and technicolour. Canadians in this part of the country have openly talked about their future as a 51st state, and it’s hard not to see why.

But the thing that obsesses me before I’m even off the plane is the hat. Where I come from a cowboy hat is a piece of costume – something you wear as a child, or when you’re trying to cultivate an image referencing some species of rebellion. In Calgary, during Stampede, you’d stand out if you weren’t wearing one. You can, of course, pick up your own hat almost anywhere in town, and most easily at any one of the branches of Lammle’s, the western wear store, all over the city or the fairgrounds. But in the interest of fitting in the organizers of Stampede give everyone in our group of travel journalists our own hat – a stiff, white Smithbilt made from woven straw with a red hatband, the signature hat of Stampede. Celebrity and VIP guests receive theirs at a ceremony. I wear mine all through Stampede and on the flight back to Toronto, and my kids have to beg me to take it off when I get home.

One unique feature of Stampede is the Indian Village, and the participation of the Treaty 7 tribes – the Stoney Nakoda, Tsuut’ina, Siksika, Kainai and Piikani – every year. The Village had moved to a new location across the Elbow River from the Saddledome the year before I visited, and with the move organizers had asked the participating tribes if they wanted a new name for more culturally sensitive times. The Indian Village had been part of Stampede since 1912, at a time when Canada’s infamous Indian Act had made practicing their traditions essentially outlawed, but Stampede founder Guy Neadick had allowed them to defy that act here. “They said that the name and the space had always been important to them,” explained Shannon Murray, Indian Village and Sweetgrass Lodge Coordinator for Stampede, and so the name remained.

Also retained was the annual title of Indian Princess – won by Savanna Sparvier of the Siksika First Nation that year – along with the addition of the Indian Relay horse race to the grandstand equestrian events. A ring of tipis staffed by the latest generation of families who’ve come to Stampede since its founding is at the centre of the village, next to a new covered venue for the daily pow wows. The kids’ pow wow is going on when I visit, and the space swirls with dancers in costumes made of vivid beading and ribbons. It’s a major social event as well as a competition, and it enhances the evolving image of Stampede in a way that might actually be uniquely Canadian.

Equally essential to Stampede – and probably even more controversial these days – are equestrian events like the chuckwagon races. They’re a big deal at Stampede, and it’s not hard to see why; fast and loud and dangerous (for both riders and horses), they draw crowds to the grandstand every afternoon. But before I board the plane for Calgary my editor tells me not to bother handing in any photos of the races, since they’ll just trigger activist elements of the paper’s readership and the complaints will land on her desk.

I can’t resist, though, and I come back with a memory card full of shots from the chuckwagon races. I’m not as successful with the Indian Relay, however, which I find even more thrilling to watch, but fiendishly difficult to shoot. I don’t even bother bringing my camera long to the big show at the grandstand that night – a glitzy, themed variety review with “big room” Vegas production values, a hot ticket that caps every night of Stampede. Without photos you’ll just have to trust me that, along with the Indian Relay, it’s not something you’ll want to miss, if you want to understand the broad, irresistible appeal of Stampede.

As my editor made it plain to me, people who love animals hate Stampede – but so do the people who love Stampede. At its heart, Stampede is a celebration of the horses and livestock who were the bedrock of Alberta’s livelihood before the age of oil, and which still occupy a central place in the lifestyle and mythology of the province. I can go for years without seeing a horse on the streets of my city in Ontario, but you can’t go anywhere in Calgary during Stampede without seeing mounted riders on the roads between the hotels and the skyscrapers.

Every town and city might have its summer fair, but none of them are an experience like Stampede, which has retained its vital role in defining what Alberta is all about, even for people who aren’t the descendants of pioneers or cattlemen, or who make their living in offices and shops. As long as the iconic image of Stampede is a man or woman on a horse, the fair will be a living event and not a theme park. That might change in the future, but from the look of Stampede today, it won’t be any time soon.

For our final full day at Stampede we’re allowed to spend time behind the chutes at the day’s rodeo competition. It’s why we’ve been kitted out with hats and western shirts, since we’ll be on full view from the grandstand bleachers, and an Ontarian in a golf shirt and a baseball cap will stand out like a sore thumb. Stampede even provides us with the services of champion rodeo veteran Jim Dunn – a real cowboy who tries to explain to me how riding bulls and broncos is scored, and how to tell who has winning form while they desperately try to stay on the back of several hundred pounds of animal furiously intent on throwing them to the ground.

Canada is a big place and I won’t lie – from my urban Ontarian perspective Stampede feels like something happening in a foreign land. I’m grateful for the accident of history and geography that allows me to visit without using my passport, but I wonder if all that distinctiveness will one day be subsumed into a more culturally homogenous future, or if it will act as a bulwark for regional identity that will decide it has no political future in Canada. Strange thoughts to be having after visiting a place while celebrating Canada’s anniversary, but there they are. Whatever happens, though, at least I got to keep the hat.

Rick McGinnis was hosted by Calgary Stampedewhich did not approve or review this story.

Photos and story © 2017, 2021 Rick McGinnis All Rights Reserved